“In the seconds before death, Will finds himself transported from the depths of the North Sea to the end of a deserted pier. Deserted, until Viktor appears… Together they journey across time and place, bearing witness to the beauty of the life Will has turned his back on.”
Playtime’s Over is the debut novel from writer James Kinsley, published by Propolis, the independent publisher from indie bookshop giant (if an indie book shop can be described as a giant) The Book Hive in Norwich.
What did our writers make of it? Read on to find out…
James Kinsley’s Playtime’s Over opens with the classic ‘drowning protagonist’ monologue, a painstaking and vivid description of the physical and mental processes running around the brain of somebody at rock bottom, as he sinks to… well, rock bottom. Immediately, we’re introduced to the point of Kinsley’s story. This is a narrative about dying.
Kinsley’s protagonist, Will, finds himself lost in a ‘strange-yet-familiar’ place… Yarmouth Pier. Okay, this is a story about two things – dying and Norfolk. Atop the pier, Will makes the acquaintance of Viktor, a blokeish psychopomp who introduces himself with a cigarette and a cup of tea. The whole thing’s very intentionally seaside-nostalgia, and Kinsley writes in a way that really brings the universal familiarity of the scene out, with a decent chunk of Chapter 3 devoted to sensory images evoked by the locale and, even for this relative newcomer to Norwich, the narrative creates a strong sense of belonging (and almost comfort) in the journey Will undertakes.
Playtime’s… narrative sometimes comes off as maybe a little too subjective, centralised on a dictatorship of meaning for the protagonist himself. This makes perfect sense within the story itself, of course, but it doesn’t subtract from the narrative weaknesses it can create: Will and Viktor’s philosophising on the meaning of life and death approaches gratuity a few too many times to maintain the strength of its descriptive grounding. Viktor’s role as psychopomp – a somewhat patronising, elbow-patches-counsellor one at that – is obviously derived from Kinsley’s desire to use the issue of mental health within his work and, while that’s definitely not a weakness, the conversations this relationship evokes between the two of them feels a little… academic? That’s not to say that readers won’t relate to the issues the two discuss, more that the messages the novel tries to deliver wind up sounding a little dogmatic, a line that, when crossed, runs the risk of trivialising the whole issue.
Philosophical concerns aside, Kinsley’s narration sparkles with clarity. The description used to describe the painting Yarmouth Sands (playing out in real time in this altered-scape) is positively gleaming with an ekphrastic style of speculative imagery, as Will begins to doubt the reality of his own eyes. The way Kinsley handles the issue of the ‘mindscape as real’ is a wonderful mix of dream-logic and limitations that leaves both Will and the reader unsure as to how much control Will has (conscious or subconscious) over this plane we assume he’s created. Viktor’s role as psychopomp is meant to keep this question being asked ‘is this happening, or inside Will’s head?’, and Viktor’s character is well-suited to the task. As a reflection of Will’s mental state, Viktor holds him to task and questions his beliefs, all in an attempt to get to the bottom of his fate.
Playtime’s Over is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with valid and insightful questions about the meaning of life, pain, death and everything between – where the problems begin are the answers, and the sometimes derivative morals of those answers. Kinsley’s writing itself is skillful and engaging, and the trips we take through Will’s mind are rewarding and witty, even in the midst of their inherently melancholy atmosphere. Approaching death with a laugh is a brave move in terms of storytelling, especially when dealing with the issue of suicide, and Playtime’s… approach deftly walks the line between lightheartedness and sincerity, never straying too far one way or the other. It’s definitely a novel worth picking up, and when it’s published by Propolis, the in-house publisher of Norwich’s beloved ‘Book Hive’, you can’t go wrong!
From what I had heard about the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was actually a little bit nervous if I’m honest. When I sat down, I didn’t know if I was ready for an emotional journey: I had a busy morning, someone was in our house servicing our boiler, and the last thing I needed was an introspective story that would make me want to sit in existential crisis all day. (Something I am prone to!) However, James Kinsley guided me through it. It was an emotional journey, but I enjoyed it far more than I had felt ready to when I began reading… even with the clinks of the boiler behind me.
I have read other stories like this, exploration of a person’s mind and motives at the point of death. However, these had given me the expectation that something transformative was going to happen for the person. Not necessarily that they will suddenly be “ok”, but you leave their story with a glimmer of hope for their future. Playtime’s Over is not like that, and I was surprised. I found myself willing the protagonist to wake up, to free himself, to live. This book tells you how it ends in the description, but I still expected the story to change. It was a bit of a gut punch when it didn’t.
But don’t worry – whilst this is an emotional story, it’s not a tough read. Some wonderful humour is laced throughout the stunningly reflective and more dark moments. The comedy is dark, of course, but it is funny. The conversation at the heart of this book is engaging. Viktor guides and pushes Will to examine what is going on for him, and to interrogate his feelings, his reasons and his past.
The reflections around energy when engaging with those we disagree with were remarkably congruent with me. The talk of gatekeepers, the “red-faced hetero white man”, and being called a snowflake or social justice warrior for “giving a shit about your fellow man.” It all echoed conversations that I have been having with friends around these issues. How do we engage? Should we? How can we look after ourselves AND others?
It was also great to have recognisable locations throughout the book. The Norwich links (where I’m based) made it easy to connect with the story. For example, when talking about the artwork in the Castle Museum, I started picturing the pieces that I like to look at when I visit. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure the places, so I could concentrate on what they were saying. It’s always a joy to see locations you know in stories.
And the best thing? You can read this in one sitting, making this book an accessible read that can be a ‘closed experience’. So it doesn’t take weeks of reading to go through this journey. Books like that can be equally powerful, of course. However, I think for this subject matter, it’s pretty nice to have an option like this that you can pick up, have that experience and then be able to put it down knowing how it ended – all in one go.
For this one, let’s start at the end. I felt eerily cold as I read the final chapter of Playtime’s Over, like I’d just stopped still after a long run against the wind. As Will and Victor curled into each other on the sofa, my toes followed suit.
In the book, Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime began playing on the TV. I’d never heard of the film before so I watched it in the hopes of understanding why this would be how someone chose to spend their final day. Physical comedy isn’t my cup of tea – I’m more the ‘Katherine Ryan doing impressions of mums at the school pick up’ kinda person. Still, this is definitely Will’s film. No doubt about it. There’s a scene in a restaurant that follows the orderly chaos of diners and waiters during the dinner time rush and at times I couldn’t tell if I was anxious or amused. It felt like the film somehow showed every person in Paris being incredibly busy for the sake of being busy, with time just absurdly ticking along in the background.
“We’ve just a little time left.”
This brilliant debut novella from James Kinsley has everything to do with time. With the exception of the first chapter, the story exists within the time it takes Will to drown. Kinsley creates a rare and delicate canvas that distils the vivid, heartfelt picture of a human psyche seeking closure within itself. Will and Victor start out as opposite sides of the same coin. Victor takes the role of the optimist, probing for some kind of resolute answer whilst Will combats his arguments with the articulate pessimism of one who has already made up their mind. But the further into the journey they got, the harder I found it to tell them apart. I kept forgetting why they were ultimately having these conversations and enjoyed the back and forth as they became friends.
The journey that Victor takes Will on is initially framed as a quest to find the ‘why’ for their inevitable situation. In such a self-aware narrative, I wasn’t sure how this would hold up when it came time for a conclusion. But Kinsley navigates around giving a singular concrete answer to instead permeate the book with lessons and musings, many without an explicit link to Will’s decision. We’re reminded of the small joy of a cup of tea or cigarette, then around the next corner we’re confronted with an analysis of religion, social justice, art or love.
Even though Victor’s character is designed to poke holes in Will’s logic, Playtime’s Over never feels disrespectful or dismissive of such a decision. Instead, the candid nature of their dialogue made me feel safe in identifying with the anxieties that Will struggles to bare. This is a novella after all, so think of it as the extra concentrated Ribena of modern social commentary. The sheer breadth of topics that the duo covers might leave you a tad exhausted.
This is a sad story, however the message is one of hope. I can’t help thinking that the final line – “We’ve just a little time left” – is an invitation to carry on the conversations that Will and Victor won’t get to finish. It’s so easy to focus on the ticking clock and forget to check in with those around us, and with ourselves. Many of us are familiar with the sinking anxiety of defining what makes a person ‘good’. In Playtime’s Over, Victor grapples with the hate that often underlies good intensions. On stage, Katherine Ryan mocks the fake charity of Jane on the PTA and everyone laughs. Personally, I need a cup of tea and a bourbon biscuit. I don’t know what make a person ‘good’, but I do know that Playtime’s Over is worth a read.
Playtime’s Over is available to buy from Propolis Publishers on the Book Hive website